ANNUAL TOP ~10 BOOK LISTS
T10. Looking for the Good War | Samet 2021
Long-overdue takedown of sanitized, jingoistic 90s hagiographies of the WW2 generation by Stephen Ambrose, Tom Brokaw, and others of the sort (ie this 2000 LIFE coffee-table book that I worked on). With an outstanding running aggregation of the noir movies and books that defined postwar US popular culture, and a thought-provoking comparison of US narratives about WW2 and the Civil War.
T10. The Men | Newman 2022
An imaginative contribution to a flavor of scifi I can never get enough of: Something extremely simple-to-describe happens — here, anyone with Y chromosomes disappears — and the author spends a book interrogating every last possible implication of it. The collapse-and-rebuild narrative offers an overlay of enigmatic internet-media eeriness.
9. Shape | Ellenberg 2021
The celebrated mathematician and writer shows with his charismatic, gee-whiz tone that not only does geometry bring "abstract comforts" but it's woven into both how the brain works and, somehow, the nature of the universe.
8. There Is Nothing for You Here | Hill 2021
The well-known Russia scholar, former NSC official and impeachment witness turns in a reflective, analytical look at Russian, UK, and US industrial, and consequently civic, decay. Filled with hard truths, counterintuitive comparisons, and informed, considered solutions.
7. The Gates of Europe | Plokhy 2021
A propulsive history of the thousand-year-old crossroads of religions and civilizations, with the best agricultural land, which became ground zero for Soviet atrocities, the Holocaust, and now Putin's unhinged murder-spree in Ukraine.
T6. Kudos | Cusk 2019
Third in a trilogy so good that after the first one I limited myself to one a year. The beguilingly opaque narrator, Faye, just goes about her stuff and talks to people, and they open up to her. Nothing happens, and yet they're among the most engrossing novels I've ever read.
T6. The Door | Szabo 1987
Like no. 3 below, this account of the narrator's relationship with her housekeeper is a dark adventure into deep uncertainty, creepy obsession, and guilt. At its heart is an addictive mystery about what the mystery is. The pivotal character is a powerhouse — original, relentless, and uncompromising.
5. The Anatomy of Fascism | Paxton 2005
Diagnoses of fascism are inherently descriptive. To see where it's occurred, the author (now 90) — a top fascism scholar for the last six decades — finds it most illustrative to pinpoint in the historical record what fascists have actually done to gain and (try to) keep power. This includes having violent right-wing extremists court wealthy conservatives with the idea that less regulation is worth the dehumanization of millions and initiation of blind-hate-fueled mass violence. Fascism is an industrial, mass-scale phenomenon that Paxton argues first appeared in recognizable form as the Ku Klux Klan in the US after the Civil War. “It should not be surprising, after all, that the most precocious democracies — the United States and France — should have generated precocious backlashes against democracy.”
4. Ada, or Ardor | Nabokov 1969
The title itself is a puzzle before you even open to the first (dense) page. "Ad" is "hell" in Russian, "da" means "yes" and in British English "Ada" and "Ardour" are homophones, so it all sounds like ["Ada oh Ada"]. A typically lyrical, despicable Nabokov love story (the protagonist's surname is Russian for "guilt" [Veen]), a lifetime long, the whole thing taking place among and between three languages, on another planet.
3. Rebecca | du Maurier 1938
Still an astonishingly well-crafted thing. The eerily nameless narrator falls into a world she can't understand, facing pure evil in a polite smile, impenetrable ambiguity and eventually... well, I won't say. Fever-pitched, beautifully written drama from the first sentence to the last. Apparently there was a 2020 streaming show which I really can't imagine is worth watching. Go straight to Hitchcock's Best Picture-winning 1940 version if you want. True forever: "People are inclined to say the wildest things if they are given half a chance."
2. Wilmington's Lie | Zucchino 2020
The tactics deployed by US domestic terrorists in recent years — white supremacy armed rioting, voter suppression — are as old as they are horrifying. A highly decorated journalist, who won his second Pulitzer for this work, assembles a visceral account of the local coup that against logic and reason resonates too well 12 decades later.
1. A Little Devil in America | Abdurraqib 2021
Can't recall fishing an essay and thinking, as I did with "I Want to Give Merry Clayton Her Roses," that that was probably the best essay ever. It just completely reinvigorates and reinvents the format. The whole book is filled with joy and experience and creativity. Abdurraquib, a poet, has a wholly original, passionate voice and uses it to discover and convey new meaning and power in the work of the Black performers whose work he spotlights.
Catch-22 | Heller 1961
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Grabbed me by the shirt in 10th grade and never let go. Just reread. Not everyone's into 400p of the same joke but it's a great joke! +It's no joke! IRL "illogic+power" is too easily passed off as "logic."
T10. Mad As Hell | Itzkoff 2014
A profile of Paddy Chayefsky and "Network," one of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic writers and one of its perfect and most enduring movies. Story of how PC wrote it makes this a book about writing itself.
T10. The Anomaly | Le Tellier 2021
Three cheers for light scifi wherein a simple, unreal event occurs and the world must react to and cope with it. With earnest but not overbearing forays into philosophical conundra by characters struggling to understand.
9. Klara and the Sun | Ishiguro 2021
A warm, friendly, childlike AI tries desperately and creatively to help her human friend in a lonely near-future dystopia we don't even really see. Subtle, artful and beautifully constructed.
8. Exhalation | Chiang 2019
Uneven short-story collection with a few of the most breathtaking and memorable tales you've come across (Exhalation, What's Expected of Us, Alchemist's Gate). TC creates worlds and interrogates them from every angle.
7. The Sum of Us | McGhee 2021
Racist policy does incalculable harm by denying everything from healthcare to worker protection to—the book's metaphor—community pools. Jaw-dropping yet hopeful account of how equality is not only right, it's good for everybody.
6. The Dawn of Everything | Graeber and Wengrove 2021
Provocative unwinding of long-held, under-examined axioms about how societies began. Perfect for your loved ones who read half of Sapiens and threw it across the room in frustration.
5. The Free World | Menand 2021
An entire curriculum between two covers. We've exited the post-war era, and heaven only knows what's coming, but for several decades there was some stability in some places and trends in art and ideas and they're all in here.
4. Transit | Cusk 2017
There. Is. Something. Hypnotic. About. These. Books. Cusk reinvented narration. The voice is so hyper-realistic, calming, and knowledgeable. The Outline trilogy is as close as you'll come to slipping into another's consciousness.
3. Motherless Brooklyn | Lethem 1999
Tight, funnysad neo-noir tale of a band of small-time crooks and their shifting loyalties. With extremely vivid, memorable characters and just gleefully great dialog.
2. Slavery By Another Name | Blackmon 2008
An inhuman, corrupt police/legal system abducted Black people into brutal de facto enslavement for decades after the Civil War. Pulitzer-winner reconstructs lives stolen and lost, and how the atrocity came about.
1. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism | Zuboff 2019
To get fun apps we enriched now unaccountably powerful oligarchs who harvest behavior and reduce humans to expendable digital husks. Say what you want about Soylent Green being people at least you can eat it
10. The Day of the Jackal | Forsyth 1971
I can’t believe he wrote this in 35 days and it still stands up as one of the greatest plots ever.
It's got everything: Passion, brain, crime. A deep, nuanced imagining of people confronting the beleaguered forested world. It shows what trees mean to modern life. If trees are beleaguered then we are, too (NB: This checks out).
8. Circe | Miller 2018
The gods must be crazy assholes. Fan fiction at a level few have pulled off historically. Miller, who has °s in and teaches Classics, dives inside the Greek epics and finds new tales of life, love, and the supernatural bursting out.
7. The Great Derangement | Ghosh 2017
If “climate denial” didn’t mean what it means, it'd apply widely to all fiction, cinema, and art that fails to grapple with the defining frame of all life henceforth. Ghosh calls us out for a failure to think and imagine.
6. Why Buddhism Is True | Wright 2017
Ancient mindfulness practices identified some things that science is only now catching up with. A sober, skeptical inquiry into these testable elements of Buddhism. I read it 2x this summer.
5. The Yellow House | Broom 2019
Memoir of an east NOLA childhood in a home that sheltered a big family and symbolized much more. Writing is , insight deep, incl Katrina and what home looks like from abroad. "We own what belongs to us, whether we claim it or not."
4. Middlemarch | Eliot 1872
It’s 150 years old. Dorothea is still implacable. Her vibes with Will still set pages on fire. One of the best things to happen to me in 2020 is Casaubon dies. Narrator would thrive in Twitter-era clever subtle snark. Pair with My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead
3. Master and Margarita | Bulgakov 1940?
Soviet Faust, refracted through Gogol, wrapped in Dostoevsky. It’s all so rich: Voland's eyes, Master's intensity, Margarita's supernatural delight. B responded to police state w playfulness and it took 50 years to publish.
1. The Demon-Haunted World | Sagan 1994
Ch 12 is tattooed on the back of my eyelids but never read it all. A quarter century later it's now a warning come true. Sagan runs modern myths through science. There are very few people in it but he holds up Frederick Douglass as paragon of enlightenment.
10. Testimony | Robertson 2016
Canon rock-n-roll tell-all by The Band guitarist, who knew everybody and did everything, ie: chatting with a Jimmy James about their redundant names, JJ said that's why he's becoming Jimi Hendrix.
9. The Optimist’s Telescope | Venkataraman 2019
From dieting to climate, we’re dangerously myopic. There's much evidence showing what we can do to be less “reckless.” An elegant synthesis of an enormous amount of reporting and research.
8. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Le Carré 1963
Writing as sharp and clear as if it'd been struck from a new block of Spree river ice. Paranoia, duplicity, betrayal, idealism, corruption. These people parachute as easily in or out of creepy danger.
7. The Woman Who Smashed Codes | Fagone 2016
Elizabeth Smith Friedman quickly dropped analyzing Shakespeare to ascend the highest levels of US military codebreaking. A brilliant, stealthily influential woman slighted by history until this book.
6. Hunting LeRoux | Shannon 2019
DEA agents pursue an entirely new brand of invisible global criminal, who does or sells anything terrible that makes money. Uncannily comprehensive law-enforcement reporting puts reader at interrogations and stake-outs.
6. Moneyland | Bullough 2019
The ultrarich hide wealth nesting dolls of assets, vehicles, jurisdictions, and schemes that Bullough calls Moneyland. A necessary and jaw-dropping primer on how so much money disappeared to hide it from law and taxation.
4.5. The Doomsday Calculation | Poundstone 2019
As my 10th grade English teacher exclaimed about an ee c. poem, "GAWD, I wish I'd written this!" Science-writing giant Poundstone did, burrowing into a bottomless math-philosophical-sci-(pseudo-sci?) rabbit hole.
4. Outline | Cusk 2016
The narrator is real in the way that photorealist paintings and method acting are real. You become the senses, curiosity, and skepticism of the narrator, a writer going to Greece to teach a class. Nothing happens and it's hypnotic.
3. Stamped From the Beginning; How to Be an Antiracist | Kendi
These books just shred 600 years of history, honing a simple idea: The opposite of racist isn't not-racist but an active antiracist uprooting of hateful policy+behavior
2. Reading Lolita in Tehran (Nafisi) | The Handmaid's Tale (Atwood)
I accidentally read Atwood after Nafisi and . Nonfiction+fiction books about women stripped of civil rights by crazed misogynistic homicidal autocracies. Iran revolution influenced Atwood.
1. Our Man | Packer
Gather round, children, pour the wine, and read this maddening story of a vastly imperfect man, full of life and himself (not in that order), whose rise, self-sabotage, and fall symbolize the American story from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
11. Space Odyssey | Benson 2018
Even if you grew up under the monolith, see how "As result of Kubrick's and Clarke's questing, cerebral commitment to scientific & technological accuracy, a big-budget Hollywood production had bn transformed into a giant... think tank."
9. When You Reach Me | Stead 2010
Tight, clever little YA book that'll keep both Gen X'ers and their kids flipping pages. Back-door intro science fiction for kids who don't know they're obsessed with it yet...
8. The First Bad Man | July 2015
Author sets up a satirical and parsimoniously surreal yet mundane world; dispatches characters into it who must take it seriously and live lives with real anxiety, neuroses, and passion. Weird but not weird-fiction-weird.
8. Suggestible You | Vance 2016
Placebo science researched w a wholly original, personal momentum & curiosity; narrated with both deftness and humor. Author arranges at one point for an NIH lab to induce pain so he can test placebo effects of coping with it: Respect.
7. Hotel Scarface | Farzad 2017
This is the breathtaking-and-true criminal conspiracy adventure story of how Miami became America's cocaine headquarters, who made it so, what they did along the way, and what happened to them.
6. Directorate S | Coll 2018
Investigation of the complex, strained alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan, which, as Joe Biden once told Hamid Karzai, is 50 times more important to the U.S. than Afghanistan.
5. She Has Her Mother's Laugh | Zimmer 2018
You think you know yourself, but have you carried a 70GB hard drive with your DNA readout around to geneticists? As thorough and readable a tour of heredity as it gets.
4. Lincoln in the Bardo | Saunders 2017
A delightfully and mildly eery tale of parenting, tragedy, love, redemption, and selflessness, with some of the most extraordinary images I've read since whenever.
3. The Left Hand of Darkness | Le Guin 1968
Unbelievable in 12 ways this was published in 1969. Long stretch of the novel has two characters trekking across an extraterrestrial Arctic and I couldn't believe it was so gripping but here it is. RIP Le Guin, 1929-2018.
2. Dreaming the Beatles | Sheffield 2018
This love poem is packed with humor, joy, and analytical heft, and proves that, as with, say, Shakespeare, Mozart, pizza, and Mickey Mouse, people will always find new ways to celebrate The Beatles.
1 The Choice | Eger 2017
Astonishing late-breaking addition to the Holocaust memoir canon. Eger recounts unspeakable horror and how it shaped the rest of her life--and career as a trauma psychologist.
10. The Magic of Math | Benjamin 2016
Wonderfully conceived, spirited, and playful romp through the disciplines we love most.
8. Wool | Howey 2013
An emotionally believable, compelling, and refreshingly original post-apocalyptic saga.
7. Neurotribes | Silberman 2015
A history of autism and impassioned, reasoned plea that people with autism be better understood and universally accepted.
6. The Blinds | Sternbergh 2017
A compulsively readable, modern Western noir from the author of the Spademan novels.
4. I Contain Multitudes | Yong 2016
A supernova of contemporary science-writing gets inside your guts in this important and readable review of microbiome science.
3. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union | Chabon 2008
Alternative-history, Jewish noir. Some of the funniest sentences I’ve read in recent memory, in any context. Just amazing writing, characters, and plotting.
2. The Half Has Never Been Told | Baptist 2016
A gut-wrenching history that tells the story of how enslaved people built the U.S. economy, told through the lives and suffering of individual people and quantitative social science analysis.
1. An American Sickness | Rosenthal 2017
Read this book as if your and your family’s life and financial livelihood depended on it — because they might. amazon.com/American-Sickn
10. The Tunnels | Mitchell 2017
Gritty cold-war history about the often deadly shenanigans pulled getting people out of East Berlin.
9. My Promised Land | Shavit 2015
A searching and personal, tough-love journalist's investigation of Israel's myths and movers.
8. 2666 | Bolaño 2009
19-course beast of a novel, 19thC literary ambition grappling with misogyny, art, mystery, and mass murder.
7. Imbeciles | Cohen 2016
Lots of talk about Nazis lately. This recounts the US eugenics movement that Nazis learned a lot from.
6. All the Birds in the Sky | Anders 2016
Preposterously charming, light fantasy/scifi meditation sprinkled with wisdom and humor.
5. Black Flags | Warrick 2015
The Zarqawi story, how the US ended it, and what arose in his wake.
4. Lost City of Z | Grann 2010
Like Raiders of the Lost Ark. True, but no Nazis, a little science, super-compelling. Even w/o Nazis!
3. The Tsar of Love and Techno | Marra 2015
Hilarious! Poignant! Unsentimental! Sentimental! A lovely sculpture of short stories.
1. A Cruel and Shocking Act | Shenon 2015
I have no more questions about the JFK assassination.